The 13th step

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What would you do?

There you are, toothless and broken in an airplane seat, slowly regaining consciousness, only to realize that you have no bags, no belongings, no idea in which direction you are flying. The feeling of life has left your body, the taste of blood fills your throat, bile burns your stomach, and somehow, despite all intentions to the contrary, you are still alive.

Meet James Frey. Now 32 and sober, married and with children, Frey can safely look back and cry -- at a former time in his life when his organs were damaged seemingly beyond repair; at the doctors who shook their heads when he was barely breathing; at a rehabilitation system so severely flawed in its 12 steps that he had to create both the light and the tunnel by which to save himself.

In mid-April, Frey releases his first book (although he was previously a screenwriter), "A Million Little Pieces" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a stark, moving, even revolutionary recount of his ordeal. It's already been heralded as a critical milestone in modern literature itself. Random punctuation, a lack of grammatical form and bare design mark a story that cuts to the nerve of addiction by clank-clank-clanking through the skull of the addicted minus literary embellishments. "A Million Little Pieces" is as insistent as it is demanding.

On the phone from his home in New York, Frey is quite aware of the beautiful mess that he's made. A little embarrassed, although not apologetic, Frey is a bit gruff but convincingly genuine.

"I wanted the book to be as simple as could be in the terms of the way that it was written. What was important was what was happening, what the ideas were, what was getting said. And it wasn't getting bogged down in grammar or quotation marks or any of the rest of that," he says. "Another reason was speed, I wanted it to move, I wanted a reader to pick it up and become addicted to it, to have to understand.

"If it was successful, you would understand what it was to be addicted, to not be able to put something down."

In fact the substance and the style become indiscernible throughout "A Million Little Pieces," to the point that the reader feels an almost uncomfortable proximity to Frey's mind, a sort of "Crime and Punishment" connection to self-destruction. In the section where he's met at the airport by his shaken parents who are there to take him to the clinic, we share the emotions: the sadness for them, Frey's self-hatred and need for a drink and to smoke some crack.

"I wanted to write an ambitious book -- to take on the big issues of literature," he says, "like God, and family, and love, and redemption, and self -- all of those things. In rehab you have to deal with the most important issues of your life, basically. And I wanted to make sure that I didn't skip any of them, or that I didn't avoid any of them."

But during the time he was actually faced with the forced institutional anonymity that rehab requires, Frey was obstinate in the face of the Twelve Steps and the God that they lead to. For the majority of the book, he just wants to die, alone.

Frey says, "Addicts are smart people for some reason," which becomes apparent in the characters who surround him during his stint at the clinic. "I think one of the reasons a lot of them can't stop drinking is because there's nothing presented to them that can work with their intellect that will help them quit. They tell them that this program works because it is so simple that anybody can do it, that it is counter to their intellect."

But within the system, several people take to Frey's stubbornness, seeing the truth beneath it. Painful vignettes follow, including the racing despair of a series of root canals executed without pain killers (they aren't allowed for patients). Squeezing the life out of two tennis balls during the unsettling experience, Frey slowly begins to regain his physical humanity. Food becomes a drug, and vomiting becomes a habit; slowly his addictions subside into a reasonable realm of self-correcting existence. All the while, the voices repetitively rant in his head, forming a sort of mantra that so accurately depicts the wandering of the mind's eye: "Get something. Fill me ... ."

"That repetition, it's like when human beings, or at least me, are thinking about something -- it's not like you only think about it once," he says. "These things always come back. These ideas, these statements, or these thoughts always come pounding back."

Heaviness aside, Frey is currently enjoying the professional fruits of his labor, with a strong buzz preceding the book's release, thanks to the advance push from his publisher. Gus Van Zant has already expressed interest in creating the film version, although Frey is surprisingly reticent.

"I want to let it live as a book. I wrote it as a book. I want it to be a book," he says with conviction.

Still the promotional foreplay has its downside. Just as Frey's being set up as the next "it" guy in book circles, he's been quoted in the New York Observer for his panning of fellow "it" guy Dave Egger's "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

"[It] pissed me off ... because ["Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,"] a book that I thought was mediocre, was being hailed as the best book written by the best writer of my generation. ... Fuck that," he scoffed. "And fuck him and fuck anybody that says that. I don't give a fuck what they think of me. I'm going to try to write the best book of my generation, and I'm going to try to be the best writer."

Frey characteristically chooses not to give a shit. He's hardly a stranger to controversy.

"It was neither a misquote, nor am I particularly proud of it," he tells me. "The reporter was at my apartment, and he was standing in front of these stacks of books I have, and he was asking me about books. I didn't set out to bash Eggers. My honest view is I could give a shit about Eggers or any other writers."

But Frey does care about life these days, a fact illustrated by his willingness to recount his life, right down to the morbid updates on the deaths of most of his co-patients at the book's end. Most went on to rediscover their addictions, then die by them.

"It's awful," he says. "I cried twice really hard when I wrote the book. I cried when I wrote the last line of it, just because I had finished it, and I was done with it, and it was very cathartic in that way. And then I cried again when I wrote that final page a week later. I mean, it's devastating what happened to everyone."

But contented by his new outlet, he's already at work on another book that picks up where "A Million Little Pieces" leaves off.

"I've read my whole life. I've always had dreams of being a writer," he says. "I have a very romantic image of what being a writer is."

Read this, and you will too.

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